I remember during my first few meals being overwhelmed by the amount of food that was set before me. Each meal started off with colorful salads. Multiple trays of small plates would be brought out from the kitchen, and on each would be something unique. The plates would be scattered across the long table, taking care more often than not to vary the placement of each. I was never sure exactly which salad to dip into first, everything looked incredibly enticing. All of the salads were savory with varying flavors, some more tangy than others and some spicy with variations of heat- this was my first taste of Moroccan food.
My mother-in-law was born and raised in Agadir, Morocco. She found herself living in Israel though she brought much of Morocco with her to her new home. She and her family moved to a small town populated predominately with other Moroccan and Tunisian families in which they together created an intimate and close-knit community. On Fridays, in preparation for Shabbat, the holy Sabbath which begins at sundown, she and neighbors during the day would bake bread in a communal oven called a frena. Each week would encompass almost the same activities with the exception of holidays which would prompt an even greater cooking (and cleaning) frenzy. Preparation for Shabbat meals would start early in the week. A visit to the local shuk or market, the ingredients for each dish bought fresh and every part of the meal made at home. Some of the spices, such as paprika, would even be ground by hand. Lemons, cauliflower, carrots, celery or peppers are some of the raw vegetables that would be seasoned and pickled to add to the medley of delicious salads that would eventually grace the Shabbat table. Meat would be purchased at the local butcher, and fresh fish usually “Princess of the Nile” or a cod would be bought for chraime, a specialty on Shabbat. Dessert at the end would always be fresh seasonal fruit, maybe dried dates or figs, also bought at the market, along with walnuts and always a glass of hot mint tea. Sometimes hard tea biscuits or cookies, also baked at home, could be found if you searched for them in the cupboards.
Over the years I developed a routine for tackling the salads, figuring out a way to leave enough room for the entrées that would follow. I usually start with the lemon soaked crunchy carrots and then crisp lemon seasoned fennel that has a pleasing anise taste. My fork migrates to the cumin-seasoned cooked beets before I end up popping a couple of spicy cracked green or mild black olives in my mouth in between conversation. Technically each person at the table has their own array of salads to enjoy, each salad confined to its own small plate. Similar to the olives though, the pickled vegetables are interspersed amongst the salads and are enjoyed collectively (though I could eat a plate of spicy raw pickled carrots and cauliflower on my own). With so many different types of salads to choose from, I usually focus on just a few. To go along with these appetizing small plates is simple but wonderful frena bread, kept warm until ready to serve, and perfect to sop up matbucha. Matbucha is a spicy tomato purée, the main ingredients being fresh ripe tomatoes, hot green peppers, garlic, and sweet paprika, the stew slowly reduced in a pot on the stove. It’s served cold or at room temperature as are all the salads on the table.
The assortment of salads would often be the same to look forward to each meal. But over the years, having moved away, when we would return for a visit, I would often find new things to try and even more dishes on the table. It’s as though the overwhelming amount of food is a way to make up for lost time. Many of the recipes for the salads, the fish, and other dishes transported with me to California. Certainly some of the flavors of Moroccan cuisine from my mother-in-law’s kitchen are prevalent in my own. Large jars of Moroccan paprika, turmeric and cumin are easily accessible on my counter-top as I try to mimic the flavors on her table. When I am with her in Israel, I try to hover in the kitchen to see how she prepares things. Recipes, as I may have mentioned, are always in “a little of this, a little of that” quantities which at first was a challenge when trying to recreate a dish. Eventually I got it. No doubt her homemade food and many of the traditions that go along with it have inspired me to even further appreciate and explore Moroccan cuisine. There’s a world of dishes I have yet to try, and hope to, perhaps one day even in Agadir.
Around the time of these pictures, I happened to be reading Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky. It’s an interesting read and sheds light on the origin of the word “salad” which is derived from “salted”. In fact much throughout the Levant when referring to salads, it’s implied small plates of seasoned or preserved vegetables, salt being a key ingredient.
In my own kitchen I try and make a medley of Moroccan salads for special meals or when hosting friends. My mother-in-law drenches most vegetables in fresh squeezed lemon juice with a bit of vegetable oil seasoned with salt, sometimes fresh minced garlic and cilantro or parsley is added. I’ll follow that process with radishes, fennel, carrots, even chopped lettuce; it’s a refreshing and enjoyable way to enjoy raw vegetables. One dish I make often is Moroccan Beets, though the beets are cooked before being tossed with lemon juice, oil and spices. Sometimes I’ll roast the beets in the oven but more commonly they’re boiled in water on the stove top before seasoning, it’s a relatively quick salad to prepare. The recipe below.
Moroccan Beet Salad
3 large beets
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon cumin, or to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (I prefer extra virgin olive oil)
1/4 cup diced fresh parsley or cilantro
Wash and clean the beets, leaving the skin on before immersing in water in a pot on the stove. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until beets are tender when pierced with a fork, roughly 45 minutes. Cool, peel, and slice beets into bite-size pieces. In a separate bowl mix the lemon juice, garlic, cumin and salt to taste. Whisk in the olive oil, then toss over beets and mix gently. Let the beets absorb the flavors before serving. Sprinkle with parsley or cilantro before serving in small plates on the table. Quantity above serves approximately four.
With so much to try, and some of the salads so easy to prepare, hope you will join me at my Moroccan table!